Pete Hammond

Hollywood has caught Q&A fever: I have now learned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has plans to keep the Q&A spirit alive year-round and not just “in season”. Academy regulations loosening rules that previously forbid members from attending filmmaker Q&As were severely relaxed this year — particularly in the months leading up to nominations, when members could attend and even be served food and drink at receptions, a past no-no. Post-nomination Q&As are limited to screenings and nominees (or others connected to nominated movies) and members are allowed to appear at just two each, with no food or receptions. But the Q&A craze has spread, and I hear the Academy has decided to make them an option at their own weekend film programs starting  in June at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. The programs (usually two on Saturday and two Sunday) give studios and distributors the opportunity to have filmmakers and actors appear after their movies for Q&As with members. Previously only films were shown, but this could increase overall attendance, a goal of the Academy’s to encourage seeing films on the big screen.

Certainly Academy members have responded strongly to Q&As and have continued to turn out since nominations were announced two weeks ago. With today’s official Academy nominee luncheon, more than 150 of them are in town to attend, and studios are taking advantage of that to book them for Q&A appearances Monday night. A sampling of Oscar contenders set for Q&As tonight include Michelle Williams; Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (and Billy Beane); Gore Verbinski; J.C. Chandor of Margin Call; Peter Straughn, writer of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Max von Sydow, in for his second in three days; and many others. Fox Searchlight has George Clooney and Alexander Payne appearing at the Egyptian for a tribute of “Classic family dramas from Oscar’s past and present,”  but the only one being shown of course is The Descendants followed by their Q&A. Searchlight has retooled the campaign for the film post-noms (it received five, including Best Picture and Actor) to emphasize its family values. Box office has increased, and it is about to become Payne’s most successful film — financially at least. Actors in particular seem to enjoy the Q&A of it all. Both Pitt and Clooney have told me they like the interaction with peers, a portion of the long awards process that’s actually bearable.

Even Sunday’s Super Bowl couldn’t stop the Q&A action. Meryl Streep, back in town for the nominees lunch, made a rare appearance in one of these forums Sunday night at the TV Academy’s Goldenson theater for an Iron Lady post-screening Q&A (I moderated) in front of an industry and Academy crowd of 500 — they gave her two enthusiastic standing ovations. The 17-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner told me beforehand she thinks the season is getting more hectic every year (she’s been to L.A. for so many award events she says she can practically land the plane at LAX herself). For the first time, she said she served on the Academy’s select foreign-language committee that judged the nine semifinalists and picked the final five over a three-day period two weeks ago. The experience was so positive seeing those world-class films that she’d like to be on the committee again,  but says she’s told they only let you do it once.

Best Actress rival and double SAG winner Viola Davis of The Help was on the circuit doing an American Cinematheque Q&A last Monday and in Palm Desert for another in-theater Q&A Friday afternoon between doing lots of press since her nomination. I’m told this week she’s off to New York for more press, then to London for the BAFTAs and more press and then back to New York for — you guessed it — more press. ‘Tis the season. Studios are trying to get their nominees out there as much as possible before ballots are due back in two weeks. Energized by The Help‘s three SAG awards, a DreamWorks source told me they believe they also have a  shot at a Best Picture upset, so they are doing everything they can to keep the movie front-of-mind. In fact, on Tuesday director Tate Taylor, supporting nominee Octavia Spencer and community leaders are appearing on a panel at the Landmark Theatres titled “The Power of Film To Create Social Change.” It is geared  to the impact of The Help and  sponsored by the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Across town that night, Best Actor nominee Gary Oldman sits for a conversation after an Actors Fund screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The Hugo contingent filled the Bruin Theatre in Westwood last Tuesday with a panel that included nominees Martin Scorsese, writer John Logan, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the visual effects team and several actors including Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer and Chloe Grace Moretz. Since rules dictated that food couldn’t be served — even free popcorn from the concession counter, which they closed — at least one enterprising and hungry Academy member (a former supporting Oscar nominee) was seen crossing over to the Village theatre across the street and coming back with popcorn and drink in hand. At the Q&A (which I also moderated), Scorsese seemed especially excited to talk about the different crafts involved in his film, which received 11 nominations, more than any other this year. He received a standing ovation.

The night before, Scorsese had been tributed at the Santa Barbara Film International Film Festival. The annual 11-day event drew 20 newly minted Oscar nominees including tributes and awards to Davis and Christopher Plummer (after watching a clip, he praised his Beginners Jack Russell Terrier co-star Cosmo, which he says can out-act The Artist’s star Jack Russell Uggie). The Artist pair of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo also got a tribute over the weekend, as did other nominees like Rooney Mara and Demian Bichir, who received Virtuoso awards. Since there are about 100 voting members in the area and the local newspaper offers prominent coverage, it is a great place to be seen and heard. When the Academy announced its new rules, the festival, run by executive director Roger Durling, called the Acad to make sure it wasn’t violating rules by having tributes or after-parties where food was served. They got the green light.

Nearly every Best Picture prospect has been aggressively putting their talent out there before and since the nominations, and the Q&A screenings should be continuing into next week — just part of an effort by consultants to leave no stone unturned. By the time the Oscars roll around, the nominees might be so worn out by the process they may hope next time they don’t get nominated.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.